In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Saturday, February 13, 2010

High Flight

Many of you are probably too young to remember when television programming ceased at 1 o'clock in the morning (on some stations, midnight), and didn't resume till 6 a.m. or later. That was way back in the mid-1960s before cable television, when there were only three broadcast networks rather than hundreds of 24-hour channels, and programming was (or at least seemed to be) dominated by local stations and their markets. People who worked at TV stations in those days actually quit work at night and went home to bed! A few minutes before the screen and sound went to plain static, you'd see a short film clip of a Boy Scout or soldier lowering the flag while the Star Spangled Banner played in the background. And in many local areas, one more thing: a sonorous voice reading the beautiful poem High Flight, as a sleek fighter aircraft banked and soared through the clouds. The few times I saw this as a lad, having stayed up late babysitting when my parents were out or snuck back to the living room to watch TV after everyone else had gone to bed (OK, I confess), I was always awestruck by it.

I hadn't seen or thought about that in many, many years, until I stumbled upon a copy of the film clip on YouTube the other night while looking for something else. And it touch me deeply again. Just reading the poem is a moving experience:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

There is a sad, moving story behind the poem, too. It was written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who was born in Shanghai, China in 1922 to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries. His father came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family and his mother from Suffolk, England. John, Jr.'s early years were spent in China with his parents; from age 9 through 17 he attended school in England, graduating from the Rugby School in 1939. He earned a scholarship to Yale University—where his father was then a chaplain—in July 1940, but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year, with England the the German Luftwaffe then being locked in the Battle of Britain. Shortly after being awarded his wings in June 1941 and being promoted to Pilot Officer, Magee was sent to Britain and to train on one of the most famous aircraft of WWII, the Supermarine Spitfire. It was while in that training that Magee wrote High Flight, while making his seventh flight in a Spitfire to an altitude of 33,000 feet. He completed the poem soon after landing and sent it home to his parents with a letter dated September 3rd, 1941.

Only three months later, while flying a Spitfire on a training mission, John was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft over the village of Roxholm, Lincolnshire, and died on impact with the ground. On his grave in England are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem: Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth -- Put out my hand and touched the Face of God. John had written several other beautiful poems during his brief military career, which he sent home to his parents.

Supermarine Spitfire

Today High Flight serves as the official poem of the Canadian Forces Air Command and the Royal Air Force, and it is required to be recited by memory by fourth class cadets (freshmen) at the United States Air Force Academy, where it is also depicted in its Field House. An excellent web site devoted to Magee and High Flight can be found here.

And now what you've all been waiting for: the High Flight film clip that closed the broadcasting day for television stations across America back in the 1960s! This film features the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter interceptor, one of the most beautiful aircraft ever produced (in my humble opinion), and one of my all-time favorites!

But wait--there's more! I didn't realize that later versions of High Flight were made with more advanced aircraft, also used at signoff until TV stations stopped signing off altogether. Here's one featuring another of my favorite aircraft, the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger -- simple and graceful!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if one could again watch television, go to the movies, or otherwise regularly see things in the media that acknowledged and honored God? These films, and the fact that they were once aired to all viewers every day as a matter of course, reflect a little bit of what our country used to be. And what of John Magee, Jr.? Do we still have young people like him who could fly a fast aircraft, defend our country, and write immortal poetry all at the same time? I'm sure there are more than a few, in our service academies and in the field. God bless and protect them, and bring forth their poetry in time to inspire the rest of us to soar as high as did Pilot Officer Magee.

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